Olympia holds the keys to Puget Sound’s future mobility

Lake Washington bridge, aka I-90 floating bridge, toll takers ca. 1940. Photo courtesy of the Washington State Dept. of Transportation.

Lake Washington bridge, aka I-90 floating bridge, toll takers ca. 1940. Photo courtesy of the Washington State Dept. of Transportation.

By Mary L. Grady
Reporter Newspapers
There are literally thousands of people who shape the transportation system in our state and region. They are engineers working out of trucks in the field, computer analysts and policy wonks who conduct surveys and open meetings. It is a complex system born of classic top-down government directive, but has become leavened with local control and public involvement.
Yet any such system brings with it an assortment of conflicting priorities and overlapping jurisdictions. Weaving our way toward understanding what is happening with roads and rails means taking a look at who runs the show.
Just who is in charge of transportation planning in Washington state and the Puget Sound region?
Maybe surprisingly, it is the law and lawmakers who are the primary drivers of the look and feel of the patchwork of transportation networks and priorities. Through the passage of bills and mandates, lawmakers enable and fund agencies to set the parameters for planning and construction in motion.
The Washington State Legislature, through the Joint Transportation Committee, drives the budget choices for the state transportation budget submitted to the governor. Representative Judy Clibborn (D-Mercer Island) leads a group of 29 legislators from both the House and the Senate as the head of the Joint Transportation Committee.
The role of the Transportation Committee is to work with the initial budget proposed by the governor to come up with a final number and list of projects. From there, funds are dispersed to projects, counties and other special transportation districts.
Along the way, the state has added new regulations to respond to growing concerns about the environment and to accommodate both the movement of goods as well as people.
The other primary players in transportation include:

  • The Washington State Department of Transportation (WSDOT) is an agency of the state and is primarily in charge of roads.
  • The Puget Sound Regional Council (PSRC) is one of the Metropolitan Planning Organizations enabled by the state that is required “to carry out a continuing, coordinated and comprehensive planning process,” for King, Snohomish, Pierce and Kitsap Counties.
  • King County Metro (METRO) is a public transportation system “organized as a locally controlled special purpose government to provide public transit (primarily bus) services” within the greater King County area.
  • Sound Transit is in a category of its own, again set up by legislation, to provide high-capacity transit services in various forms for King, Pierce and Snohomish Counties.

At the state level, the Legislature and the Joint Transportation Committee, while reworking budgets and priorities, must always keep their eye on what is coming next. Yet, as key highways and bridges are now being repaired and high capacity transit has been set in motion after years of uncertainty and indecision, the direction of any future transportation investments could be slowed significantly by the lack of funds.

Money, Clibborn and others say, is the single most critical factor in planning for future transportation needs.
The primary source of funding for transportation projects comes from the gas tax. With people driving less and more efficient cars replacing the stock of older, less efficient cars, gas tax revenues have fallen precipitously.
Because of these trends, the overall transportation revenue picture has dimmed by $3 billion over the 16-year, long-term plan of the last transportation budget. As such, the Legislature must and has been looking for new ways to pay for bridges, roads and rail transit.
“We have to come up with some new ideas in the next session of the Legislature to fund transportation in the future. The gas tax,” Clibborn said, “is a failing resource.”
It has served as a proxy for (highway) user fees, she explained. But now, with more efficient vehicles and even vehicles that do not use any gas, the gas tax no longer makes much sense.
Tolls and some types of user fees have moved to the top of the list.
“The move to tolls is an opportunity to expand not only revenues, but to manage traffic during peak times, and send price signals to encourage changes in behavior,” she said. They may not be popular, she notes, but are increasingly necessary.
Yet the Legislature forges ahead.
Last April, the Legislature presented the final version of a $7.5 billion 2009-11 state transportation budget, which will finance more than 400 projects across the state, generating 46,000 jobs.
The final budget represents the compromise between the budgets passed by the House and Senate earlier this legislative session. Clibborn said the transportation budget is one area of strength in an otherwise tough budget year amidst the economic downturn.
“The transportation budget is the good news in a bad-news economy,” Clibborn said. “We’re actually on the verge of the busiest transportation construction season ever for Washington state.
“When you take into account this budget and the federal stimulus dollars we appropriated earlier this session, we’re looking at an unprecedented transportation investment.”
Mary Grady is editor of the Mercer Island Reporter. She can be reached at 206-232-1215 or mgrady@mi-reporter.com.